Pancreatic cancer survivor defies horrible odds
- on February 7, 2012
Karen Kopp says she’s lucky to be alive.
“I’m not sure how I’ve made it this long to be perfectly honest,” she said during a telephone interview from her Kansas City, Mo., home.
In 2009, Kopp was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which is described by oncologists as the ugliest of all cancers because it’s often discovered in late stages and there are few treatment options. Seventy-four percent of patients die within the first year of diagnosis. The five-year survival rate is 6 percent.
“It’s one of the hardest diseases that we see and treat as far as finding a cure and having people do well with chemotherapy for long-term survival,” said Dr. Michelle Affield of Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s Oncology Center. “The survival rates haven’t changed for a long time for pancreatic cancer while other cancers are making better progress.”
She said the best chance for a cure is surgery, but the cancer has to be caught early before moving outside the pancreas. If surgery is not an option, then doctors typically prescribe chemotherapy and radiation treatments . Affield said the symptoms typically do not show up until the disease has progressed, and a classic one is jaundice or a yellowish color of the skin. Sometimes, there are vague symptoms that are thought to be indigestion or abdominal pains.
That’s how Kopp says she got lucky. She was suffering pain and thought it might be a gallbladder problem. She also had lost weight due to a lack of appetite but had attributed that to stress.
A gastroenterologist ran a test and found the mass on her pancreas. She was referred to a Kansas City oncologist who didn’t give her much hope. She decided to get a second opinion at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where she is originally from. That doctor was more optimistic and so she decided to have surgery there. They took out two-thirds of her pancreas and the lymph nodes surrounding it. Out of 20 lymph nodes, only one had cancer cells in it.
“I came out very, very lucky,” she said. She had seven months of chemotherapy and then was in remission. She went back to work as a technical nurse in a Kansas City hospital.
In December 2010, the cancer returned. She had four months of chemotherapy followed by three months of a combination of radiation treatments and chemotherapy. Following the treatments, a test showed no tumors and she was told once again last summer that she was in remission.
“Everything looked good. My doctors thought it was over,” she said. But in November, the cancer was back and worse than ever.
“I couldn’t handle it anymore. I just wanted to end my life,” she said. Her oncologist suggested seeing a neurologist and he suggested a pain pump that would provide medication 24/7. She had one implanted on Dec. 2, and Kopp said the surgery was very difficult but now she’s pain free.
“That has made a huge difference in my life, being able to focus and stay optimistic and be as active as I possibly can. It made a world of difference,” she said.
She’s undergoing chemotherapy treatments and taking life one day at a time. She’s found help through the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s Kansas City affiliate, which raises awareness about the disease and money for research. It also provides resources for patients and families.
“It gives me a focus on trying to raise enough money so we can take this disease off the bottom of the list of people that survive. We need more funding for research so perhaps it can get diagnosed earlier,” she said.
Kopp was among 1,100 people who participated in the network’s inaugural PurpleStride 5K event last spring and it raised $100,000. She also shared her story during the event to provide hope for other survivors.
“My faith is really what has gotten me through a lot of this,” she said. “God saved me, so shame on me if I didn’t do something to help someone else.”
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is a nonprofit advocacy organization that was founded in 1999. It’s mission is to advance research, support patients, and create hope for those affected by pancreatic cancer.
The Kansas City affiliate has two main fundraisers each year:
• PurpleStride 5k run/walk event in April. This year’s event is April 21 in Overland Park.
• Night of Hope, an event that includes a dinner and silent and live auctions, in November.
To learn more, visit pancan.org/kansascity or call 877-272-6226.